Why Masi's latest marginal call has left F1 with a sour taste
When FIA president Jean Todt tweeted a congratulatory message about Formula 1's Abu Dhabi season finale, the responses to it said everything about the scale of unease about Sunday's events.
While Todt praised "all those who made it possible", many fans could not hide their anger at what they felt had been a shambolic running of the final F1 race of the season.
Pouring through the messages, accusations of the FIA having rigged the event, manipulated its own rules and put the desire for a Hollywood-style finish over sporting fairness were rampant.
But, in a year when F1 social media comments have been perhaps more extreme than ever, it was equally telling that many of these opinions were shared within the series too.
Williams driver George Russell himself felt that the way the late safety car restart had been handled – which ultimately decided the race in favour of Max Verstappen – was not right.
"Max is an absolutely fantastic driver who has had an incredible season and I have nothing but huge respect for him, but what just happened is absolutely unacceptable," wrote Russell. "I cannot believe what we've just seen."
Safety car decision
The controversy revolves around the manner in which F1 race director Michael Masi handled the safety car that had been called out for Nicholas Latifi's crash five laps from the finish.
The procedure had appeared to be pretty normal as the pack formed up behind the Aston Martin safety car, and track officials moved quickly to remove the stricken Williams.
Nicholas Latifi, Williams FW43B
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
But then things deviated from the norm when Masi informed teams: "Lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake."
That decision meant that, if the race restarted, then Max Verstappen on his fresh soft tyres would need to clear five backmarkers before he could have a shot at snatching the lead, and with it the title, from Lewis Hamilton.
But shortly after a delayed radio message was played from Red Bull boss Christian Horner to Masi, urging him to clear the backmarkers, convention was again broken as on the penultimate lap only a select few cars were told to unlap themselves.
Then, to further compound the confusion, Masi elected to restart the race at the end of that same lap, and not at the end of the following lap as the sporting regulations dictate.
With Verstappen on fresh softs, and Hamilton on well-used hards, it was obvious which man held the clear advantage once battle resumed.
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The U-turn on the backmarkers being allowed to unlap themselves, the decision to then only let a few move forward, and then the rushed restart, all came together to leave F1, the FIA and Masi facing a barrage of criticism over what happened.
Ultimately, the circumstances meant Masi played God in being the man who decided which way the championship went, as it depended entirely on that restart call.
And that was perhaps exacerbated by the tyre strategy differences between the top two cars.
If the race had run under the safety car to the finish, then Hamilton was champion. If it resumed, it was obvious that Verstappen had such a tyre advantage that he would move to the front and take the crown.
While the decision-making process of the F1 race director should be completely independent of consideration for the fortunes of individual competitors – as they should all be treated equally – what does not sit easy with a lot of people is the way that the rulebook appears to have been overruled to make things happen.
This was not a case of procedure being followed to the letter, and Hamilton and Mercedes simply being unlucky with how things turned out. Instead, things seem to have been out of the ordinary.
The Safety Car and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
The first message that lapped cars may not overtake was abnormal, because standard procedure is to say nothing until the first instruction comes through about backmarkers unlapping themselves.
So, when the subsequent call was made shortly afterwards to shift a few of the lapped cars out of the way – only those in front of Verstappen and not those between the Dutchman and Carlos Sainz Jr behind him – it pointed to a U-turn.
Then, as Mercedes and its QC Paul Harris argued with the stewards later amid their protest push, Article 48.12 states that the safety car restart can only come at the end of the 'following lap' after backmarkers have been told to unlap themselves.
In the Abu Dhabi case, with the lapped cars being moved on the penultimate lap, then the race should not have been able to get going before the end of lap 58, which was the final lap of the race. So the race should have been timed out.
The rules on this point are explicit, and the FIA accepted that they had not been applied 'fully'. However, the stewards concluded that other regulations overruled this demand, so it was not a breach.
It cited Article 15.3 that states the Race Director shall have "overriding authority" for the safety car. So, when he decided it was coming in, then that is all that matters.
And once the decision was taken to bring the safety car in, which is covered in Article 48.13, then that meant the safety car had to come in that lap – so this overruled 48.12.
This interpretation of certain regulations overruling others – and of the race director having complete free reign over the safety car and other aspects of the race weekend – could set an alarming precedent for the future.
Article 15.3 gives him control over the starting procedure, for example. So does this now mean, in an extreme case, he could start the race when only three lights are shown, and not after the five that separate rules dictate?
This carte blanche approach from the stewards in handing power to the race director means that there is potential for races to be influenced even more by the decisions of the regulator in ways that are not laid down in the rulebook.
Teams ultimately can only operate and prepare themselves in ways where they try to follow the regulations. But if the rules don't count because the race director has authority to override them, then how can that be judged as fair and equal in sporting terms?
Such a concern comes off the back of unease within the F1 paddock about the FIA playing fast and loose with decisions this year, such as the 'play on' mentality of incidents like Verstappen/Hamilton in Brazil or yellow flags being withdrawn quickly in qualifying if cars run off track.
Furthermore, a lack of consistency over penalties this year, allied to confusion from drivers about racing rules, has led to discomfort about the role race control is having in deciding the outcomes of races.
Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, is interviewed regarding the Stewards decisions
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
As Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said on Sunday night when asked if the FIA could learn lessons from this year: "I think there's always lessons that you can learn as a team, and in life generally.
"We felt that the decisions at the beginning of the race went against us. We obviously felt that the decision at the end of the race was right. It's been a season like that.
"There's been marginal calls. Some we've benefited from, the majority of which we've lost out from."
Red flag solution
Another justification for what Masi did on Sunday was that he was eager to get the racing rolling again.
During the stewards' hearing Masi said "that it had long been agreed by all the teams that where possible it was highly desirable for the race to end in a "green" condition (i.e. not under a Safety Car)."
While finishing the race under the safety car would likely have triggered criticisms from the Red Bull camp, what makes little sense is why Masi painted himself into a corner over having to make a call on such a safety car restart in the first place.
If the desire to get the race finished under green was so important, then it could have been done in a much fairer and more transparent way with a red flag and then a complete fresh restart.
Just a week on from Hamilton feeling uneasy about the need for a red flag to level things up in Saudi Arabia after Mick Schumacher crashed, a race stoppage a few laps from home in Abu Dhabi would have been much more equitable from a sporting perspective.
With both Hamilton and Verstappen allowed to start on fresh tyres, a simple shoot out over one or more laps would have left the competition being decided on track on equal terms – with no outside interference.
It would have been edge-of-your seat entertainment, and would have marked a spectacular end to an amazing season.
Instead, F1 heads into a winter now facing the prospect of an Appeal Court hearing, and, on what should have been grand prix racing's greatest day, accusations from the public that the championship is rigged.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
There is also an element that it is deeply unfair on Verstappen too that, after a season where he driven brilliantly and ended as a worthy champion, that there will forever be a cloud over the circumstances that helped him win in Abu Dhabi.
It said much that, as he took in the bizarre ending to the race on Sunday, Hamilton had his own theories about what had played out.
Speaking on team radio just a few corners from the chequered flag, with a message that was not broadcast by F1 on its international feed, Hamilton said: "This race has been manipulated, man."
Judging by the response of many fans after Sunday night's events, he is far from alone in that view.
Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner shakes hands with second placed Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
Photo by: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
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